WASHINGTON – A former Facebook data scientist stunned lawmakers and the public with revelations that the company is aware of the apparent harm done to some teenagers by Instagram and their allegations of dishonesty in fighting hatred and misinformation. Now she’s coming to Congress.
Frances Haugen has brought a sweeping condemnation of Facebook backed by tens of thousands of pages of internal research that she secretly copied before quitting her job at Facebook’s civil integrity department. Haugen has also filed complaints with federal agencies alleging that Facebook’s own research shows it exacerbates hatred, misinformation and political unrest, but the company is hiding what it knows.
After recent reports in the Wall Street Journal sparked public outcry based on documents she leaked to the newspaper, Haugen revealed her identity in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday night. She insisted that “Facebook has shown time and time again that it chooses profit over security”.
The former employee challenging the social networking giant, with 2.8 billion users worldwide and a market value of nearly $ 1 trillion, is a 37-year-old data professional from Iowa with a degree in computer engineering and a master’s in business administration from Harvard . She worked for 15 years before being hired by Facebook at companies like Google and Pinterest in 2019.
Haugen will testify on Tuesday at a hearing before the Senate’s trade subcommittee on consumer protection.
The panel examines how Facebook is using information from its own researchers on Instagram that may indicate potential harm to some of its young users, especially girls, while it has publicly downplayed the negative effects. For some teenagers who subscribed to Facebook’s popular photo-sharing platform, the peer pressure created by the visually focused Instagram led to mental health and body image issues and, in some cases, eating disorders and thoughts of suicide, such as the research leaked by Haugen showed.
An internal study cited 13.5% of teenage girls who said Instagram had worse suicidal thoughts and 17% of teenage girls said it had worse eating disorders.
“And what’s super tragic is that Facebook’s own research says that when these young women start consuming this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed,” Haugen said in the television interview. “And it means that they use the app more. And so they end up in this feedback cycle in which they hate their bodies more and more. “
As the Instagram research PR debacle escalated last week, Facebook stopped working on a children’s version of Instagram, which the company says is primarily aimed at tweens ages 10-12.
The senators are excited to hear from Haugen.
“I look forward to asking follow-up questions about why Facebook has not taken action to resolve issues on its platforms, even if its own internal investigations reflect massive problems,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., A member of The Subcommittee told The Associated Press on Monday. “I want to discuss how Facebook’s algorithms promote harmful and divisive content and how much Facebook really benefits from our children.”
It’s about algorithms that control what appears in users’ newsfeeds and how they prefer hateful content. Haugen said a change in the flow of content in 2018 added more divide and ill-will in a network supposedly created to bring people closer together. Despite the hostility the new algorithms fueled, Facebook found that they helped keep people coming back – a pattern that helped the social media giant sell more of the digital ads that generate most of its revenue .
Haugen’s criticism extends beyond the Instagram situation. She said in the interview that Facebook prematurely disabled safeguards to prevent misinformation and incitement to violence following Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump last year, claiming this was part of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 contributed.
After the November elections, Facebook disbanded the civic integrity union that Haugen had worked for. That was the moment when it became clear to her: “I do not trust that you will actually invest what needs to be invested so that Facebook does not become dangerous.”
Haugen says she told Facebook executives that she asked to work in an area of the company fighting misinformation because she lost a friend to online conspiracy theories.
Antigone Davis, Facebook’s head of global security, was exposed to a barrage of criticism from trade panel senators at a hearing last Thursday. They accused Facebook of covering up the negative findings on Instagram and asked the company to commit to making changes.
Davis defended Instagram’s efforts to protect young people through its platform. She denied the way the Wall Street Journal story describes what the research shows.
Facebook considers Haugen’s claims to be misleading and insists that there is no evidence to suggest that this is the main cause of social polarization.
“Even with the most advanced technology that I believe we are using, even with the tens of thousands of people we employ to maintain the security and integrity of our platform, we will be 100 percent of the time,” said Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of politics and public affairs, on CNN’s Reliable Sources on Sunday.
That’s because of the “immediate and spontaneous form of communication” on Facebook, said Clegg, adding, “I think we’re doing more than any sane person can expect.”
Haugen hopes this will stimulate the government to legislate on Facebook’s activities, Haugen says. Like the other tech giants Google, Amazon and Apple, Facebook has enjoyed minimal regulation in Washington for years.
Separately on Monday, a massive global outage plunged Facebook, Instagram, and the company’s WhatsApp messaging platform into chaos that didn’t gradually resolve until late Monday Eastern Time. For some users, WhatsApp worked for a while, then not. For others, Instagram worked, but not Facebook and so on.
Facebook didn’t say what could have caused the outage, which started around 11:40 a.m. EDT and still hasn’t been resolved more than six hours later.
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